Substituting Yarn: Obstacles in Knitting
Substituting yarn is something we all do and we think we can do it with impunity, but the more I work with yarn, the more I am convinced that yarn substitutions are not as easy as they seem. Is it possible that substituting yarn is an obstacle to a successful project?
Why Substituting Yarn is Great
We look at a pattern, say to ourselves I don’t have that yarn, but I have / want to get this one, that seems similar, so substituting yarn makes sense. We look at yarn weight, stitch gauge, needle size, and fiber content. We find something we like, and off we go. This allows us to stay within our budgets and use our stash, work patterns done in yarn not readily accessible to us, and individualize our projects. Classes are done on substituting yarn. There are two on Craftsy: Yarn Substitution Made Easy with Kellie Nuss, and Know Your Yarn with Clara Parkes.
Why Substituting Yarn Isn’t Always Great
If you aren’t familiar with the original yarn, this means you are just making guesses based on what might be less than perfect information. In many cases, like sock yarn, most dyers are using similar yarn bases, but other weights are wide open in both fiber content and twist. Many knitters look at the gauge given on the ball band, but that can be less informative than you might guess. Often the yarn company is 1) using machine knit samples to get gauge, or 2) pulling numbers from charts and tables that define yarn weights, not based on knitted samples.
I’ve been knitting with Elemental Affect’s Civility yarn lately. I love the yarn. It is 70% merino and 30% silk. Yum. Here is an example of where a seemingly identical yarn isn’t. There is a Sport weight (3-ply), which weighs in at 400 yards to 4 ounce/112 gram skein. There is also a Sport Hi-Twist (3-ply), which also weighs in at 400 yards to 4 ounce/112 gram skein. Yet, when I look at the numbers I get from my gauge swatches, I get different stitch and row per inch numbers. I have used the same pair of needles, so that isn’t the issue. When I spoke to Jeane deCoster, owner of Elemental Affects and designer of the yarns, about the difference, she said the difference lies in the twist, not the plies or fiber content. This totally makes sense, and if I had multiple yarns in front of me I could probably see the difference in twists, and even fiber. But most often, we are making substitutions without the benefit of knowing those important details about the original yarn.
We can turn to wraps per inch (WPI) to try to get more information. I took my two sport yarns, wrapped them, then counted the wraps. For the Sport I got 13 WPI and for the Sport Hi-Twist I got 15 WPI (actually 14.5 WPI). Then I looked at a WPI variety of WPI charts/tables/references and they are all different! These yarns could be anything from fingering to worsted, depending on the resource I consult.
Here is a blog post I wrote back in the fall on trying to find a substitute for a very unique yarn. Substituting yarn without the original as reference can leave your project open a lot of potential pitfalls that might show up in your project. My advice to all knitters is to do yarn substituting as you like, but make the most informed choices you can. Swatch. Observe. Do not think issues showing up early will be solved later on. If it isn’t right your yarn substitution the project may not end up being worth your time.
Why We All Will Keep Substituting Yarn
Belon is a pattern I have substituted yarn on three times: Originally done in Black Pearl (center, below; no longer available), I then did it in Kiwi Lace (two color, right), both from Zealand, then yet again in Serenity (red!) from Claudia Hand Painted Yarns.
After saying all of the above, I cannot wait to try some of my existing patterns in Civility, which I love.